Witch Hunter: Dramatized Audiobook

As you may or may not know if you frequent this blog, I am also the writer of Audio Epics’ fantasy audio drama The Witch Hunter Chronicles. It’s an epic story set in a fictional renaissance city called Sevenpeaks. All portents say the end of the world is coming and that witches are to blame for this. And so, the dreaded Witch Hunters are told to hunt down and kill all witches. One hunter, a fiery-eyed man named Ludlov, refuses to participate in the slaughter. He believes the dark cult that killed his wife is to blame and the only person who can help him find the truth is Samina, a beautiful gypsy girl with magical powers…

Released in 2010, The Witch Hunter Chronicles won an Ogle Award (for fantasy audio drama). Four years later, the story has been turned into a novel, simply titled Witch Hunter.

Witch Hunter is the deeper, more epic and more thoughtful version of that story. It’s a 90,000 word novel and it’s our intention to turn it into a 10-hour audiobook. Not a dry audiobook like there are so many out there, but an exciting sonic experience full of sound and music that brings this epic story to life.

To be able to complete this ambitious project, we have launched a crowdfunding campaign, which is in full swing right now. Have a look!

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Maleficent

As a lover of traditional fantasy and fairy tales, I was intrigued by the prospect of Disney’s newest film Maleficent. Simultaneously, I also had fairly low expectations of it. After all, re-imagined Hollywood blockbuster versions of classic fairy tales are a subgenre on the rise and previous entries have certainly entertained me, but failed to light a real spark in my response (Snow White and the Huntsman, Jack The Giant Slayer). So I went to Maleficent expecting it to be a fairly enjoyable fantasy adventure like those other films were to me. To my surprise and delight, the film not only far exceeded my expectations, but actually turned out to be one of my favourites in a long time.

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Maleficent is an alternative take on the tale of Sleeping Beauty, drawing on the superb animated Disney version but at the same time offering a completely different version of the story. This is, according to the narrator who opens and closes the film, what really happened. It is the story told from the viewpoint of Maleficent, known to all as the evil fairy who curses the princess. In this version, we get to meet her up close and learn why she did what she did and why she’s actually a very relatable and humane character and not simply a villain. I suppose she’s a bit of an Anakin Skywalker.

To me, this was one of the most gorgeous-looking special effects films in recent memory. In the beginning of the movie, we get to know Maleficent as a child in her natural habitat, the magical kingdom of The Moors. The designers who created this really understood what makes such an environment work. It’s a vibrant, sprawling universe of pixies and goblins where surprises lurk behind every tree, while at the same time it’s deeply grounded in nature. Later on, this organic environment turns dark, but it still retains an ethereal beauty. The human world feels more toned down, but it’s not a jarring contrast. In fact, the kingdom’s castle is quite beautiful in its own right.

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To compare with a recent release, Snow White & The Huntsman was also a very beautiful-looking film, which, like Maleficent, managed to delve a bit deeper into the characters it was about, but what that film didn’t really understand as well about fairy tales is that a huge part of their magic actually comes from their morality. A great fairy tale contains a great moral lesson. This is something Maleficent does take to heart and it makes it a much more poignant and powerful film. In fact, there are several moral themes to be found in the film. One of them is moral redemption. This is an important theme that’s welcome in today’s society, where we like to think of those on the other side of things as inherently and irrevocably evil. Another theme in the film has to do with the meaning of true love. That may sound incredibly worn and cliché, but this film actually deals with it without any whinging, preaching or cheesiness. It’s impossible not to mention another very recent Disney film that turns out to have the same idea, but doing so means spoiling the plot to some extent. If you’ve seen both films, you’ll know which one I mean, and in my opinion, Maleficent manages to say the same thing in a much better way. This is because Maleficent doesn’t contrast true love with simple evil, but rather with the budding of a love that actually may yet become true love. That simple fact makes the message much more powerful and meaningful in my opinion.

I’ve never been a big fan of Angelina Jolie’s, whom I always thought of as having a fairly cold and distant sort of charisma. In Maleficent, it’s actually this quality of hers that makes her so suited to the part, but more surprisingly, she also manages to convey a subtle sense of vulnerability and soft edges to an otherwise hard persona, which makes her performance very rounded. Elle Fanning plays Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty, and really evokes the genuine radiance and sunniness you expect from that character. This is another area where the film contrasts with Snow White and The Huntsman, where Kristen Stewart felt painfully miscast. Elle Fanning actually feels like the kind of girl animals would flock to in adoration. I also liked the fact that both Aurora and the prince really looked and felt like very young people, as they should. They portray the innocence that these characters are all about.

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I was surprised to find out that this film was the directing debut effort Robert Stromberg, whose career so far has always been in special effects. Unlike Empire magazine, I don’t feel at all that he directed it like a special effects guy, but really upholds the story and the characters throughout the film. The acting is great and the pacing is solid, as well. What did not surprise me was that the screenplay was written by Linda Woolverton, whose work on Disney classics such as Beauty and the Beast and Mulan was entirely in the same vein as this one.

I also really loved James Newton Howard’s score, which portrayed a thematic richness and an appropriate sense of subtlety at the same time. The only part that made me scratch my head was Lana Del Rey’s unnecessarily dark and disturbing rendition of Once Upon A Dream in the end credits, which felt more like Requiem for a Dream.

Films such as Maleficent and The Hobbit really hearten me because they prove that there are still big films being made that understand fantasy in the same way I do. Many sophisticated people today feel that stories, even fantasy, should be complex and have all kinds of sociological and political layers. I think that fantasy is a genre that manages to remind us of universal truths more convincingly than other stories do, in part because there is a beautiful simplicity to them. As Maleficent shows, this has nothing to do with black and white morality, but with straight and honest storytelling without a hint of cynicism.

 

P.S.: I think this trailer shows far too much of the film, but other than that it is a good trailer:

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

The Desolation Of Smaug

I’m a huge Tolkien fan who has read The Hobbit many times, listened to the BBC radio drama more than I can remember and even read John D. Rateliff’s two-volume History of the Hobbit, a very detailed recounting of how the story came to be, including the original draft where Thorin was still called Gandalf. So obviously there was one film this year that I was really, really, really looking forward to and it has finally been released! The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second part of the trilogy and this is my review of it!

You can read my thoughts on the first part in my earlier review of An Unexpected Journey, but to recap, I thought the first film was brilliant and an awesome Christmas present for this Tolkien fan. But to my amazement, The Desolation of Smaug manages to be even better.

Other reviewers have pointed out that the tone darkens in this second chapter, but I would qualify that. Yes, this middle part is more serious but in no way is it any less fun. There is still quite a bit of humour and swashbuckling adventure in this chapter, even while some of the character arcs start moving in a grim direction.

Bilbo has grown more confident and starts to embrace his role in the group but already the addictive lure of the Ring is starting to influence him and even though we know that he will eventually give the Ring away, it is still suspenseful and disturbing to see how it sometimes already subtly invades his psyche, particularly in Mirkwood. Still, he retains his purity and remains the same decent, wholesome figure that we know and love. As the journey enters a crucial stage, Bilbo’s courage and inventiveness impressed me as much as it did the Dwarves.

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I loved Balin in this movie. He was already my favourite Dwarf in the book and in the first film, but here his kindly manner and wisdom really offers a much-needed counterweight for what is really a group of hot-headed, impatient and increasingly obsessive Dwarves, particularly Dwalin and Thorin. The latter, while still oozing the charisma of a true once and future king, starts showing cracks in his nobility, stating multiple times that he will not risk the fate of his quest for the sake of one companion. He is becoming desperate to succeed and there is a tangible sense of danger emanating from Thorin as he comes closer to his goal. The acting on display here is of the highest quality. Some of the other Dwarves are coming more to the front, as well. While Bombur is still just “the fat one”, he also has one of the most entertaining and hilarious action moments in the movie. Most importantly, though, it’s Kili who starts a new subplot that really makes his character much more interesting.

The company’s stay in Mirkwood is made more personal by fleshing out the character of the Wood Elf king, Thranduil, and including two other characters. One is Thranduil’s son, our old friend Legolas. Since Tolkien’s lore does mention that Legolas is Thranduil’s son, it was a logical decision to bring his character into The Hobbit film, linking it more to The Lord of the Rings. Besides him, though, there is also an entirely new character, imagined by the writers of the film: Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lily. Her character is very much a fighter and a protector of the land, but she is also a bit more open-minded, a bit more inquisitive and a bit more innocent than some of the other Elves. She forms a bond with Kili. It’s a subplot completely made up for the film version that was never in the book, and for that reason it may have some Tolkien fans worried. Personally, however, I found that the tone of this side-story was very much in line with Tolkien’s own. It echoes Gimli’s adoration for Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings to some extent and includes a scene that is reminiscent of something that happens when Frodo meets Arwen in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. It was actually a very satisfying yet subtle storyline that makes the interaction between the Dwarves and the Elves much more interesting and rounded, and also adds more emotional connectivity between the various stages of the journey, allowing the story to feel a bit more like a cohesive whole than just an episodic series of fairly unrelated events. This is one of many subtle reasons why the tone of the film is shifted a bit from An Unexpected Journey, giving it more urgency and danger.

As the company leaves the woods behind and enters the floating city of Laketown, we actually meet humans for the first time in this trilogy. Laketown is superbly realised, bathing in a very strong Warhammer-esque atmosphere. The presence of Stephen Fry as the ultra-corrupt Master of the town brings an element of British absurdity and darker humour. It’s not a serious comment on politics (it’s far too over the top for that) but it does help a great deal to make another character from the book stronger: Bard the bowman. In the book, he sort of pops up at the end to take on the dragon with his black arrow. Here, he is given much more to do. The screenwriters were clever to introduce Bard much earlier in the story and introduce his ancestral connection to Dale long before he meets Smaug. He is also an idealist and a protector of the common folk, but not in that annoying preachy way. He is simply a very responsible, hard-working and serious single father. The fact that the Dwarves act like ungrateful louts when he helps them out helps to foreshadow important events that will occur in the third film.

And so, our friends set off to the Lonely Mountain. This last third of the film was the most exciting to me. The build-up to the opening of the door is handled with a lot of tension in vintage Jackson style. When at last Thorin and company do manage to enter the mountain, it is a genuinely moving moment and one where the deep camaraderie between these Dwarves can be felt. Yes, they may be boorish, paranoid and ridiculously proud, but they are stout, loyal friends who stick with each other through thick and thin. They really are an exceptional collection of characters, especially when you consider how different they all are in their collective “Dwarvishness”.

As in the book, Bilbo is the burglar and so he is the one who has to go down into the treasure halls to look for the Arkenstone on his own, hoping not to wake the dragon. Of course he does wake the beast. And what a beast it is! Oh my, Smaug is huge. The most impressive part about Smaug, apart from his appearance and his booming voice, is in fact how cunning he is. This is not just a big monster like Jaws, but also a highly intelligent psychopath with uncanny intuition and insight. He taunts Bilbo, he even forces him to take off the Ring through sheer power of will, and he figures out exactly what’s going on entirely on his own. This makes him even scarier than his teeth and his claws.

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The finale of the film deviates from the book quite a bit, in that the Dwarves aren’t content to just sit there and wait until Smaug is gone. Instead, they decide to go after him and actually kill the dragon. Let me repeat that I am a big fan of the book, but… THIS IS MUCH BETTER IN THE FILM. The Dwarves get to be heroic, to actually fight back and really reclaim their homeland, or at least make the effort. It’s desperate, it’s stupid and it’s so right! Like Gimli said in The Return of the King: “Certainty of death, small chance of success… What are we waiting for?” This is the Dwarven spirit! I suspect it’s based on the New Zealand spirit. Then what they actually do to trap Smaug is so inventive and just so damn cool (even though it does involve furnaces and rivers of molten gold)… Well, you’ll just have to see it… And then… Just when Smaug gets really, really angry and he’s about to take revenge on the poor people of Laketown… The movie ends. Aaaarrrrrgghhh! A whole year! A whole year of waiting!

Nevertheless… I left the cinema absolutely stunned. I loved the first film, but this… This blew my mind. There are so many wonderful elements in there: the interaction between the Dwarves, Bilbo’s evolution into a real hero (while still retaining his ultimate “Hobbitness”) and the many, many clever ways in which the filmmakers have managed to make this story larger, more epic, more in line with The Lord of the Rings and more cohesive, by weaving story threads in sometimes surprising ways that really make characters stand out more and make their motivations stronger… It’s baffling. And all the while you feel that everything is slowly moving in the direction of a huge climax in There And Back Again. And I haven’t even mentioned Gandalf’s “side quest”, which was alluded to in the book and is fully fleshed out here. Suffice it to say that Dol Guldur is an amazing location and Gandalf has to really work hard at being the best wizard he can be here.

I know a lot of people will be upset because this film is in many ways quite different from the book it was based on, but I, who read The Hobbit many times since I was little and who have devoted my life to fantasy storytelling because of Tolkien, I say that when it comes to The Hobbit… The film is, in my humble opinion, a lot better than the book. I know, it’s the ultimate blasphemy, but that’s how I feel. There is raw storytelling power, much deeper characterisation and a greater sense of a cohesive vision here. And that’s absolutely no criticism towards Tolkien. After all, he only wrote this book for his own children back in the 1930s. It was only much later that he decided to really bring it much more in line with his larger mythos. He never really got round to fully incorporating it by rewriting the original story, but if he had, I suspect it would have been somewhat similar to these films, at least in some important regards. But even if I’m wrong about that, I can’t imagine a better cinematic version of The Hobbit.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

Elysium review

“Elysium” seemed to hold the promise of an intelligent scifi-action-thriller with a political/social undercurrent. It also seemed to have the budget and the talent behind it to pull off such an ambitious concept, especially since the writer/director already has experience in this area with “District 9” (which I haven’t seen). Why then, did the movie turn out to be a complete piece of unswallowable crap? “Elysium” saddens and angers me and I’m not usually angered by a film simply because it’s not good.

So why do I think this is such a bad film? I’m afraid it will be hard to go into this without spoiling it so if you haven’t yet seen it, please be warned as of now: massively big spoilers are going to follow.

Still here? Okay. Let’s begin.

The main concept of Elysium is a dystopian future (a mere century from now, actually) where Earth has turned into an overpopulated, poor and diseased slum and a small group of super-rich people have managed to build a better life for themselves on a space station orbiting the planet, called Elysium. This space station, which looks suspiciously like a cross between the one from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the Citadel from the “Mass Effect” games, comes complete with artificial gravity and air, gorgeous houses, beautiful gardens and lots of pretty women in bikinis. It also looks suspiciously like Hollywood, California. Perhaps if the film had spent more time on Elysium, it would at least have been more agreeable to look at. Instead, two-thirds of it take place on Earth, more specifically the postapocalyptic garbage heap that is L.A., where hero Matt Damon is trying to make up for his previous life of crime by being a good-natured and obedient factory worker. Of course he also has a love interest, who is of course an estranged childhood friend. Of course he meets her again and tries to prove to her that he is now a decent guy. This whole portion of the film, like many other elements in it, is completely cut-&-paste and devoid of any soul or heart. It’s like the writer rationally knew he needed a love story to bring his protagonist more to life, but he didn’t really believe in it himself. In order to make us care more about the love interest, the movie gives her a cute, terminally ill daughter. Heavy-handed storytelling is an understatement, but I have to admit that the woman who plays the love-interest-nurse does an admirable job and at least made me care more about her and her daughter than about anyone else in the story, including the actual protagonist. On the other hand, she’s just not given enough to do, as is unfortunately so often the case in Hollywood movies.

The concept of “Elysium” is not a bad one. Sure, dystopian futures are hardly original, but the main idea here is interesting. I was hoping that the film would tell us a bit more about this terrible future: its politics, what people are like on Elysium, how it got this far. It does none of these things. Instead it focuses entirely on profanity-spewing, muscular tough guys with tattoos who shoot each other all day long and talk in gravelly voices, emphasising words like “fuck” and “kill” a lot. The only people from Elysium given any time to do anything are Jodie Foster’s one-dimensional arch-villain and her accomplice, some ridiculously caricatured, stuck-up snob who dies in the middle of the movie. It’s really too bad, since I like Jodie Foster a lot and what I was actually expecting when I saw the trailer was some kind of clever cat-and-mouse game between her and the Damon character. Instead, she gives the impression that she’s just sick of her job as protector of Elysium, and not in an “I’m starting to have moral qualms about this whole thing” kind of way, but just in a “how many innocent civilians can you blow up before it just gets boring” kind of way. So she sends out yet another caricature to do the dirty work: this time it’s an alcohol-swilling, bazooka-wielding, South-African lowlife who really doesn’t waste any opportunity to make it blindingly obvious that he’s South-African. His accent is so thick it’s really quite fascinating, if also distracting.

Anyway, Matt Damon gets into a lot of trouble, has an accident in the factory where he works, which will cause him to die in five days. This sets him on a quest to get to Elysium ASAP because they have technology there (in everyone’s home!) that can cure anyone in literally a few seconds… Of anything.

Pause for dramatic effect.

Think about this for a minute. Whether it’s cancer or broken bones, all you need to do is lie down in a glass cabinet and -poof- you’re healed. It’s like walking over a heart in an old video game. Let me check the brochure again, this was a science fiction film, right? I’m not a science geek, and I’m not saying that every sci-fi film should be scientifically sound but if you’re actually trying to comment on where we’re headed as a society, and you’re trying to present a bleak representation of a possible future, you should at least make some effort to be in the slightest bit, oh, I don’t know, believable, perhaps? Not insulting to your audience’s intelligence, in other words. This… This wouldn’t happen in Harry Potter. And it’s not like the writer-director shows the slightest bit of unease at his painfully cheap solution to the world’s health problems. In fact, he seems to be in love with it. In the most ridiculous scene I have seen that wasn’t intended to be comedy since “The Room”, the South-African thug’s face is blown off, as is shown in full, frontal, completely unnecessary gory detail, and yes, where his face used to be, there is now a big bloody hole with nothing in it. So they put him in one of those medical thingamajigs and guess what? His face grows right back! Tadaa! This is not the only magical technology in the film (there is also the uploading and downloading of passwords and data straight from one man’s brain into another) but this is so stupid, I thought I had fallen asleep and started having an absurd dream. But nope, I checked with my girlfriend who was also there and unless she had the same dream, this is actually in the movie.

Anyway, after long, long stretches of gritty action scenes set in ugly, graffiti-infested locales, the movie wraps up with Matt Damon sacrificing his life (*yawn*) and changing the whole system of Elysium so that now, the same medical technology that makes the inhabitants of Elysium so ridiculously immortal is given to everyone on Earth. Aww… And they lived happily ever after, the en– wait a minute? Wasn’t the big problem on Earth the massive overpopulation? And now they’re going to make everyone immortal? And suddenly everything’s solved? Apparently so, because the music signifies we have to be happy now and the words “written and directed by Neil Blomkamp” have made their way to the screen already.

See, the problem that I have, what makes me so angry with this movie – besides the horribly clumsy action scenes where I can’t see what’s going on and I just get seasick – is that everything about it seems to shout that this is a serious, mature sci-fi thriller about pressing social and political issues (because it’s gritty and thematic, you know) but it has absolutely nothing intelligent to say. In fact, it only has stupid things to say. Okay, so you want to talk about the massive gap between the haves and the have-nots? At least show us something from both sides instead of just one-dimensionally vilifying all the rich and powerful. There is not a single likable character on Elysium and even the bad ones get little attention. How much more interesting and even-handed would this have been if there had been someone there who took pity on the poor people on Earth? Or who wasn’t aware of the situation until they found out and then started taking action? You say overpopulation is a problem? Then don’t pretend you’re solving anything by bringing physical immortality to the poverty-stricken, crime-infested masses. If this were just a simple dumb action movie, I would have still been bored, but I’d have shrugged and moved on, but now I’m angry. You’ve taken it upon yourself to make a statement about the world, so do it! This is not it. This is taking some visual elements from Mass Effect (a video game that’s an infinitely superior science fiction story), adding some desperado lowlife action and throwing some money at Jodie Foster to have her look callous and evil for a few scenes. With all the money, all the talent and all the resources the filmmakers had at their disposal, how they could come up with something this loud, boorish and lazy is beyond me.

Some additional questions I have:

  • Why did the nurse’s house look like a perfectly nice place even though it was in the middle of a postapocalyptic junkyard?
  • What does the rest of the planet look like? What happens there? It’s like Earth only means L.A.
  • What’s happened to film music in the last decade or so? Once more, we are treated to the same repetitive samples with the occasional blaring horn-sound — which was cool when Inception did it but is massively cliché now… Not to mention the “wailing woman” who always has to cover every “emotional” moment.

And there are many more questions about the plot, but by now I think I’ve made my point.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

A Reason for Evil: Why Revenge of the Sith is a better story than The Dark Knight

Now why would I want to write a post just to compare two completely different films that have almost nothing to do with each other? The answer is two-fold. For one, I believe that at the heart of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and the second Nolan Batman film The Dark Knight lies a very similar tragic tale of how a good person becomes a force for evil and it is my opinion that George Lucas did a much better and more insightful job. Secondly, The Dark Knight has been widely received as a masterpiece, the one work that truly changed the face of superhero movies and even one of the greatest films ever made, while the Star Wars prequels as a whole have been maligned unfairly by critics, not to mention utterly despised by hordes of angry, resentful fanboys frothing at the mouth with rabid hatred. In my opinion, the Star Wars prequel trilogy as a whole is a vastly underrated masterpiece and The Dark Knight is just a relatively good movie heavily damaged by some colossally disturbing flaws. Since I’m obviously in the minority, I think it’s only right that I explain why I feel this way, and one approach would be to tackle the one component the two films most clearly have in common: the tragic downfall of a hero. In this case, Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force and Harvey Dent’s turn to becoming Two-Face.

Let’s start with the actual “prelapsarian” characterisations of Anakin Skywalker and Harvey Dent, respectively. In The Phantom Menace, Anakin is a little boy with a kind and loving heart, fearless and overconfident, but compassionate as well. His departure from his mother is clearly the emotional centre of the film as well as the start of his spiritual journey. This departure is reluctant and uncertain and it comes with a promise, an overconfident promise from the boy, claiming that he will “come back and free you, mom”. In Attack of the Clones, it becomes clear in the beginning that Anakin hasn’t actually kept his promise. His duties as a Padawan have kept him from returning to Tatooine. His overconfidence has evolved into a certain arrogance and an impetuousness that may be due to his youth, but also enlarged by his actual immense power, which is clearly too much for him to deal with. When premonitions of his mother’s impending death start plaguing him, he abandons his duties to return to the promise he made ten years before as a little boy. It then turns out, he is too late. He cannot save his mother. For the first time, all his power is not enough, and that realisation brings confusion, guilt and anger with it. The seed of his downfall is sown in this moment, when he acts out his feelings of extreme anger by committing an atrocity: slaying the Sand People who are responsible for his mother’s death, blinded by rage. It’s important to note that this is not yet the moment when he turns into a monster. He goes right back to being Anakin, but now a wounded version with a blight on his soul. He is still compassionate for those he loves, as evidenced by his attempt at rescuing Obi-Wan and his commitment to the good fight in the early stages of Revenge of the Sith. But what happened with Anakin’s mother has left a stain on his idealism and his confidence, and deep inside he fears that the world is not fair and he is not capable of vanquishing death and that makes him resentful and angry rather than humble, precisely because he is used to being so powerful in the Force and because he is aware of the rumours that he is “the Chosen One”. It is precisely when what he loves most dearly in the world is endangered, that he panics and starts behaving like a cornered animal. In this weakened emotional state, he is willing to listen to Palpatine’s evil whisperings.

Compare this to Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. For one thing, Harvey was not even present in the far superior Batman Begins. His story only begins with the second film, where he is established early on as a noble and idealistic figure: finally someone the people can really look up to and believe in because he has a genuine vision for Gotham’s safety and dealing with its massive crime problem. It’s revealed that he has a relationship with Rachel Dawes so we assume he is in love with her, although this is never actually shown in great detail. If anything, their relationship is clearly young and tentative and under a lot of pressure. It’s not the kind of uncontrolled, immature passion that Anakin feels for Padmé… Which is precisely why the subsequent loss or Rachel’s life, no matter how tragic, is not a credible setup for a complete personality change in Harvey. The problem is that Harvey Dent is shown to be a very mature and balanced individual. It would take a lot for him to turn to the dark side and I think we can rule out romantic passion, because he is clearly shown to be a more mature person than that and the nature of his relationship to Rachel is far too down-to-earth to warrant a Dracula-like turn away from the light.

Could it be then, that hubris was the inner flaw that put Harvey on his dark path? Anakin possessed enormous power and succumbed to his delusions of grandeur, believing it was possible for him to conquer death itself. Nothing so operatic is even hinted at in Harvey Dent. He is a district attorney, not a chosen mythological hero. He wields the power to push back crime, but it’s quite clearly a hard struggle. He’s winning, but only because of his own innate moral resilience, not because he wields a power he cannot comprehend. He is even so wise that he knows the danger of good intentions and too much power in advance, as he says in the beginning of the movie: “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. So what is it that pushes him over the edge? That question is never fully answered, and it makes Harvey’s turn so sharp and complete it lacks credibility.

A far worse offense than that, though, is what it actually is that pushes Harvey Dent over the edge, and what he becomes afterwards.

The manipulation has begun…

In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side is initiated by Palpatine instilling a distrust for the Jedi council in him; a distrust that’s not entirely unwarranted. They do hold Anakin back, because they do fear what he might become. There is a lack of communication from both sides between Anakin and the Council, with Obi-Wan as the only person to bridge that gap to some extent. Palpatine knows very well that all he needs to do is to keep Anakin away from Obi-Wan to start his plan and poison the boy’s mind. It all begins with the very same visions that plagued Anakin before the death of his mother, only now they are about his young wife Padmé. Whether the visions are a creation of Dark Side rituals perpetrated by Palpatine or not, the future emperor happily makes use of the horrible associations they make in Anakin’s mind to make the young Jedi fear for his beloved’s life. Then, acting as though he is entirely unaware of Anakin’s situation, he teases him with promises of the power to keep his beloved from dying… Dark Side power. Gently, he lures the boy in, making him curious, preying on his distrust of the Jedi, his great power (suppressed by Jedi ideology) and his greatest fears. He plays the father figure, the only one who understands him, who is willing to listen and tell him what he wants to hear. That’s very important! Then, when push comes to shove and Anakin really finds himself in a situation where he has to make a choice between the Jedi and Palpatine, all the elements are in place for Anakin to make the choice to side with Palpatine and gain the power to save his beloved wife, whom he loves in a passionate and irrational way. From here, Anakin ceases to be Anakin and becomes Darth Vader, a tool of the emperor. His anger and hatred lead him to do the most horrible thing imaginable: to kill children. This is a very extreme act, one that completely pushes him into absolute darkness, and that’s precisely why it was a necessary and important plot-point and it was earned by what came before: hatred for the Jedi who tried to suppress his powers, who are complacent and unwilling to act, who will stop at nothing to gain control of the entire Republic and the whole galaxy, as proclaimed by the one person Anakin still trusts, the only one who can save the love of his life. At this point, the Jedi are de-humanised in Anakin’s mind and the murder of their children becomes a gruesome necessity in his twisted view. Once this has occurred, his turn to evil is clear and complete.

“Yeah, this seems like a reasonable guy. I think I’ll listen to him instead of everybody else on the planet.”

In The Dark Knight, Rachel is killed by the Joker. This is no secret to Harvey Dent. He knows well enough that the Joker misled Batman and that the Dark Knight did everything he could to save both Harvey and Rachel. But while Harvey is resting in the hospital, his face half burned away (a form of symbolic immolation similar to Anakin’s burning in Revenge of the Sith), he gets a visit from the Joker. The dialogue that then plays out is what leads to the worst, most contrived subplot in the movie. The Joker, the man who is clearly and directly responsible for the death of Harvey’s girlfriend, is actually the only person Harvey listens to. He shouts commissioner Gordon away, a good and decent man, but actually listens to the one person he knows he can blame! The one face that should be on the receiving end of his fist, a psychotic and murderous clown, that is the person that Harvey decides to actually trust on his word. A brief speech follows, where the Joker blames the corruption of society, the selfish ambitions of the politicians and other obvious fingerpoints for what actually happened to Rachel, portraying himself to be nothing more than a random force of nature, a purposeless bringer of carnage, in other words, a kind of nihilistic cosmical force who really can’t help it that he just is who he is. And what happens? Harvey listens. Yup. He lets the Joker go. After all, he’s only a “wild dog”, as he puts it later in the movie. Instead he decides to go after everyone else except the Joker. It’s at this point that the movie makes absolutely zero emotional sense anymore. It ends with Harvey threatening the lives of commissioner Gordon’s wife and kids, in other words, exactly the people he was out to protect before, exactly the people he as a rational and intelligent man knows to be innocent. All of this is explained by nothing more than a coin symbolising Harvey’s tendency for seeing life as random and indifferent and pointlessly cruel. You know, that might have worked if he had always been a cold-blooded psycho. But he was a good and decent man, not prone to hubris, not prone to psychosis and not emotionally hurt in a way that would believably lead him to such completely illogical and irrational actions that are so far removed from the character he was just a few days before, it’s completely and utterly unwarranted. Sure, I know that Harvey, in a moment of anger, was threatening a criminal with his coin, playing out a very Dirty Harry-like scene where blind chance was given control over the fate of the man he was threatening. But how on earth does this set up his later actions? Just because the same theme was used doesn’t mean it explains in any way why he would completely ignore the clear and present evil and instead very purposely pursue the obviously innocent. Two-Face is not an agent of the unpredictable forces of blind chance, as the script desperately wants us to see it, he is just a bad guy. For no reason established in his previous actions or dialogue.

Because of this, I claim without any reservations that Revenge of the Sith does a vastly superior job of conveying the fall of a hero to darkness than The Dark Knight does. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just one of several reasons why I believe George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels to be superior films compared to The Dark Knight.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

Man of Steel review

The other night I went to see “Man Of Steel”, the new Superman film directed by Zack Snyder (“300”, “Watchmen”). I had seen the trailers and found myself very curious about this new iteration of the Superman mythos. Something about the combination of the heartwrenching music from “The Fellowship of the Ring”, the artistic shooting style and inner monologue made it seem like this was going to be a Terrence Malick-style take on Superman, which made sense to me. Superman is no doubt the most clearly spiritual of all famous superheroes. A film that charts Clark Kent’s origins and growth into Superman, focusing on his inner turmoil, his deep love for mankind and the sacrifices that he makes for them could be powerful and moving. So I was excited to see “Man of Steel”.

Unfortunately, I have to admit I was very disappointed in this regard. Don’t get me wrong, “Man of Steel” is a very enjoyable film, but only if you take it as simple fun. In the end, it’s just a big-budget special effects blockbuster full of wall-to-wall action. It’s far more Michael Bay than Terrence Malick. If it did try to go deeper, I have to say it failed miserably to achieve that effect in me. Here is the essence of what bothered me about the film:

Where is the heart?

I’m not a big superhero fan. On the whole, I’m a different kind of geek, but I do like DC’s two big ones: Superman and Batman. Superman is a decidedly different kind of hero compared to Batman and he should be treated differently as well. Batman is all about being broody and traumatised and living in a world of darkness. Superman, however, is not. He is a symbol of hope, of all the very best that mankind can aspire to. He is a simple all-American farmboy from Kansas raised by loving parents as well as the most powerful man alive. He should make you feel warm inside.

The old Superman movies got this. “Superman Returns” got this. “Smallville” got this. Even “Lois & Clark”, in all its deliberate cheesiness, really got this. “Man of Steel”, however, tries to “Batmanify” Superman. Instead of the warm colours and romantic sunsets of previous entries, Zack Snyder goes for what’s currently cool, which means grim faces and washed-out colours… Which wouldn’t be so bad, considering there are some gorgeous visual designs here, but Snyder ruins it for me by shooting the entire film in completely unnecessary shaky-cam and applying exaggerated lens flare effects that put JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek” to shame, in extremely fast-paced scenes where no shot lasts longer than a few seconds. It’s like the whole movie is a trailer, even in its narrative structure. It tries to echo “Batman Begins” by fragmenting the story instead of telling it chronologically, but while “Batman Begins” used this technique so well you hardly noticed it, in “Man of Steel” the effect is extremely in-your-face and jarring. As a result, I stopped caring emotionally. And that’s what brings me to the core of the problem I had with this film: it lacked heart, in a big way.

The scenes that are supposed to shed light on Clark Kent’s youth and his relationship to his parents are so brief and so few that he seems to be completely detached from them. The budding romance between Superman and Lois Lane is handled like an afterthought. Even the moment when Clark finally learns who he really is and gets to speak to his real father (albeit a digital ghost-version of him… Or something) is simply used as a piece of exposition that ultimately amounted to little more than dad telling his son “here’s your costume, now go and be super and stuff”, never stopping to contemplate how all of this makes Clark feel.

Some of the characters are handled quite well, in particular general Zod, the villain. In fact, much like in “The Dark Knight”, I got the impression that the writers were mostly interested in the villain in this movie. Most other characters are not just one-dimensional, they are there as nothing more than mechanistic plot devices, with Jonathan Kent as the worst example. Clark’s foster father is reduced to a sickeningly cold and detached man who at one point even tells his son it would probably have been better to let a bus full of children die a terrible death than to risk anyone knowing he has special powers. It was one of several “What??” moments I had during the film. And I’m usually a very forgiving guy. I forgive stories that don’t make logical sense as long as they make emotional sense. Unfortunately, several key moments in this movie don’t make any kind of sense.

“Man of Steel” was clearly intended to be a more serious, darker version of Superman, in the hopes of reaching those people who always thought Superman to be too much of a wuss compared to some of the edgier superheroes. Instead of making Superman more respectable, however, the film just makes him more boring. There is no sense of joy here, unless it be the joy of destroying things and making lots and lots of noise. The action scenes are exceedingly long and over the top. Superman seems to actually enjoy smashing into buildings and causing as much collateral damage as possible in this film. While the mayhem is cool, it does get a bit exhausting and it focuses on Superman’s powers as a violent force, rather than something noble and beautiful he actually uses to save people.

All of the above sounds extremely negative, I know, but as I said, I still did enjoy the film, despite the big problems I had with it. For one thing, I loved the opening scenes, showing the final hours of Krypton. The designs were suitably fantastical and rich and it really felt like an epic space opera in which big and important events were happening.

I really liked Henry Cavill as Superman. He has the look, the voice and the quiet inner strength that the character needs. His acting is reserved but he radiates a sense of nobility that really works with the character.

I thought it was great that the story didn’t feature any Kryptonite and that the villain was both genuinely threatening and somewhat understandable.

And I really enjoyed Hans Zimmer’s memorable score, which evokes the promise of something epic going to happen the whole time. It never quite enters that lyrical realm, though. It never quite really soars, and in my opinion, it pales in comparison to John Williams’ majestic symphonic themes, one of the elements that I really missed in this film… But it was still a very good score.

All in all, I know I’m being unusually harsh (for me), but that’s because I thought this film had enormous potential and some incredible talent behind it, and I believe it could have been so much more if it had just dared to be quieter and more patient. If it had focused on the people more and if it had given them heart and humour and warmth. If it had just told the story, building anticipation to that great moment when Clark Kent accepts his destiny and becomes Superman, instead of pasting that moment almost randomly in a patchwork narrative.

As it stands, “Man of Steel” is just a big, cool spectacle to be enjoyed when you’re in the mood for something loud and big, and I’ve got nothing against that. It’s just that I really believe this film could have been something truly special, and now, I just don’t think it is.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

Descent: Journeys in the Dark – A comparison between editions

My love for roleplaying games began with the old tabletop dungeon crawlers HeroQuest and Warhammer Quest back in the nineties when I was a little boy. Later on, I turned to “real” roleplaying games, ranging from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay over Dungeons & Dragons to Star Wars and World of Darkness. But I always liked a good old solid bit of dungeon-delving goodness. So it was that a few years ago, I discovered Descent: Journeys in the Dark. The game initially caught my eye for its nostalgic dungeon-crawling appeal but I quickly found out this was a different beast than the likes of Warhammer Quest. In Descent, most players control a hero character but one player takes on the mantle of The Overlord. Be aware that this Overlord is not a gamemaster. He is not there to provide a storyline, to breathe life into non-player characters or even to give the players fun challenges to overcome. No, the Overlord is there to kill the crap out of them. He is the enemy, pure and simple. He controls all the monsters, sets traps and puts the heroes in danger, not so they can have stories to tell, but so he can defeat them and win the game. Understandably, Descent is a game with an intense all-against-one atmosphere that can really bring a lot of tension to the table. It’s an aggressive, highly tactical game with an emphasis on fast-paced exploration and combat. You never know what you’re going to find behind the next door, but chances are it’s out to eat your brain.

Descent: 1st Edition

Last year, Fantasy Flight Games released a follow-up to Descent. It was called the “2nd edition” of the game but really, it was so different they could have given it a different name. The new edition set out to fix some of Descent‘s flaws, most importantly the original game’s exceedingly long duration. Not a bad idea since a quest could easily take 6 hours or more to finish! Unfortunately, the long duration was fixed mostly by having the quests take place in very small dungeons where everything is visible right away. Whereas the first Descent had a sense of mystery and exploration that came from the Overlord’s hidden knowledge, the second one really turns it into a tactical skirmish game that happens to take place underground — and even that is not really entirely true, since quite few of the maps in 2nd edition take place above ground as well, in villages and forests. The floorplans are very beautiful, though, and a lot of attention to detail went into them.

Descent 2nd edition. As you can see, the “dungeons” are very small.

Another aspect that really changed in 2nd edition is its shift of focus: whereas the original Descent was comparable to a table-top Diablo, a fast-paced hack & slash game, the second one tries to introduce more roleplaying elements and turn Descent into something more akin to “RPG light”. Heroes now have a few skills that can sometimes be used to escape traps or resist evil magic and the quests are decidedly more story-driven. Also, 2nd edition includes a campaign mode in the box that allows heroes to gain experience, buy better equipment in between adventures and finally face the Overlord himself in a final epic game. The original Descent didn’t include this in the main box, but it did have the campaign mode available in a pretty big expansion called The Road To Legend. This expansion had some pretty complex rules in comparison to the rather straightforward campaign mode in 2nd edition, but it also came with some truly awesome stuff such as an entirely separate board that showed the fantasy land of Terrinoth, on which the epic scale of the campaign conflict took place: the Overlord’s military campaign, sacking cities throughout the land and the heroes’ journey to find wise mentors to train them and achieve greater levels of power. The Road To Legend also contained three different plots and several incarnations of the Overlord himself. Since this expansion was intended for long-term play over several months, the designers also had the decency to at least make the individual quests in the campaign mercifully shorter.
Besides Road To Legend, the original Descent also had a secondary campaign box, called Sea Of Blood, which bathed the entire game in a piratey seafaring atmosphere and included a whole nautical combat system, complete with cannons and sharks! Still, while those expansions were quite ambitious, the campaign system as introduced in the main box in the 2nd edition is quite workable and elegant.

The original Descent‘s long length was due to a number of factors, all of which have been addressed in the 2nd edition.

Perhaps the number one reason why Descent was such a ridiculously long game was spawning. The Overlord was able to bring new monsters on the table by using his evil Overlord cards. Theoretically, he could be doing this throughout the entire game although there are limitations. The sheer amount of enemies keeping the heroes busy was one of the main reasons why the game could keep on going for quite a while. 2nd edition doesn’t entirely eliminate this but replaces it with occasional ‘reinforcements’ that are specified for each individual quest. On the one hand, this is a good way to reduce game duration, but on the other, part of the fun of being the Overlord was always figuring out the right places and monsters for spawning, and part of the fun of being a hero was the constant feeling of having to be on your guard…

Another bit of streamlining was the elimination of “threat tokens” in the 2nd edition. In the original Descent, the Overlord collected these tokens every turn to be able to pay for spawning monsters and setting evil traps. In the 2nd edition, this is no longer necessary. The Overlord can simply use his Overlord cards at will. The flipside is that the new Overlord cards are much less powerful. Gone are the days of saving your tokens for that one big super-powerful card. It’s all more toned down, more low-risk, low-reward in the 2nd edition.

The overland map used in the campaigns of “The Road To Legend”

In Descent 1st edition, heroes could theoretically die and come back to life, however there was a catch. Every time a hero died, this came at the cost of the group’s “conquest tokens”. If all conquest tokens were lost, the heroes had lost and the Overlord had won. In 2nd edition, hero death is not as important. Everyone can simply come back, but it does mean losing time. The tension in the 2nd edition comes from the race to achieve goals. In each quest, the heroes have to rescue someone/find something before the Overlord kills someone/finds something. In that sense, the confrontation is more story-driven, but less direct and aggressive than in the first edition.

Second edition, because of its smaller dungeons, eliminated the presence of doors. In the first edition, opening a door meant discovering a new part of the dungeon. In the second edition, there are no such discoveries, as there is no exploration. Even chests, surely one of the most iconic elements of a dungeon crawler, have been replaced by abstract green orbs known as “search tokens”. All of this does make the second edition of Descent feel less like a dungeon crawler and more like a tactical skirmish game with light roleplaying elements.

Of course, the second edition doesn’t just streamline and eliminate elements but it adds new ones as well. One of these innovations is the class system. In the first edition, a player picked a hero and used the stats on the hero chart and that was it. Example:

A hero chart from 1st edition

In the second edition, players can also choose a class for their heroes, choosing specialisations for them which can expand by gaining experience over several quests. This allows for a bit more variety and choice from the player’s point of view and I think it is a positive evolution.

What the first and second editions of Descent share, is in my opinion the single most fun tabletop combat system in existence (as far as I know, that is). It’s fast, simple, versatile and unique, using 6-sided dice that show heart symbols to denote damage, numbers to denote the amount of squares travelled by ranged and magic attacks and lightning symbols known as ‘surges’ that trigger all kinds of special abilities. It’s really quite creative. The second edition adds one more element, which is the grey and black “defense dice” which add a randomised chance to shrug off damage.

Descent 2nd edition combat dice

All in all, the second edition of Descent is in a number of ways a more modest, less aggressive rendition that is a bit more casual, whereas the original Descent is a big, epic clash of the titans with high tension. It takes more time, it’s more complex and in a way, it asks more effort from its players, but I don’t think I’ve ever had more intense and enjoyable tabletop gaming sessions than some of our late-night Descent delves. By contrast, playing sessions of the second edition have been fun, but “safe”. I do sort of miss the adrenaline of the original. All in all, I will certainly hold on to my copy of the original Descent and The Road To Legend.

My friends playing Descent into the wee hours

My friends playing Descent into the wee hours

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

The meaning of being critical

There! I’ve seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey three times now and it’s profoundly amazing how it actually gets better with each viewing. This is truly a wonderful adaptation entirely in line with the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, my all-time favourite films. I was shocked, therefore, to find that The Hobbit has actually received only mild critical praise and hasn’t been nominated for any major award outside of the technical categories. It’s disappointing, but as a fantasy fan I’m kind of used to being looked down upon by the “elite”. It’s been that way since, well, forever, after all. I suppose The Lord of the Rings was an exception in terms of its critical reception (at least the cinematic version), possibly because when it came out, it was “new” in the eyes of the non-geek world. Its literary roots also helped to grant it a certain credibility in the circles of those who believe films should be “intellectual” for whatever reason. What bothers me more, though, is how utterly flimsy the grounds for this lukewarm reception were and more precisely, how they’ve been repeated ad nauseum by different people until they lost all meaning. Resistance to the new technology of 48 FPS (which I’ve by now seen and approve of), coupled with an “it’s not LOTR” shrug, whereby the film was often diminished in the eyes of those critics simply because it doesn’t have the same dark and epic tone of its predecessors. There is a strange idea doing the rounds these days that films have to be ominous, emotionally heavy and “mature” (whatever that actually means) in order to be meaningful or worth considering for an award. I’ve read one review that patronizingly called The Hobbit “harmless fun”. Well, I suppose it is harmless fun, certainly, but it is also fun of the highest quality, and it does have something to say as well. Just because it doesn’t slap you in the face doesn’t mean it’s not profound in its beauty, its artistry and its charm. At any rate I was happy to find that most casual moviegoers were very enthusiastic about the film, praising its well-crafted characters, storyline, music and visual artistry.

This has caused me to scratch my head and think about this a bit. Why is it that those who are concerned with cinema for a living seem to be so jaded and blasé about it at times? It seems to me that people who want to appear knowledgeable about a topic take great care to be as critical about it as possible. Not critical in its original sense, the critical mind that embarks on a journey of detailed appraisal – but what we have come to understand by the term “criticism” today, which usually amounts to quick, broad judgments that ultimately aren’t very “critical” at all.

Unfortunately, this form of criticism has also found its way into the geek community, where it has now grown wild and uncontrollable. It almost seems like negativity has become a must for anyone wanting to appear intelligent, and I think fantasy and Sci-fi fans have desired to appear intelligent for ages, having spent their lives absorbing culture that has been frowned upon by the mainstream for a very long time. Today (thankfully), fantastic genre material is finally being taken a little bit more seriously, but there is still a tangible sense of shame, even fear, surrounding the enjoyment of fantasy. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the almost laughably desperate attempts that novelists, film makers and game developers have been making to give fantasy a more “mature” and “relevant” edge, often inserting easily readable political messages into their work or providing a gloomy tone and so much violence and sex that nobody could possibly mistake their work for something “for kids”. I’m not a fan of this development since to me it comes across much like a teenager whining that nobody takes him seriously, which inevitably leads to people taking the kid even less seriously. The “look at me, I’m mature, I’ve got politics and sex and stuff” school of fantasy doesn’t really strike me as very fantastical at all. This is the stuff that claims to be confronting but to me it seems to be running away from what fantasy actually is: mysterious, intuitive, joyous and free. Of course, if people enjoy this style, that’s a great thing since there are definitely good things being made in that area. What bothers me is not really the work itself, but the way “dark and mature” is accepted whereas fun, charming and beautiful fantasy is not, unless it does something else that is edgy and cool, like being so kitschy that you’re allowed to enjoy it since you might be ironic about it. Honest, wide-eyed, innocent love for strange and unbelievable worlds, creatures and stories, is not okay apparently, and I don’t know why, but I guess it’s just not hip or edgy enough.

All in all, what we get when reading magazines or websites is an incredibly repetitive and soulless approach to enjoying the geeky genres. It’s always the same, utterly boring criticisms and praises (mostly the former) that resurface because everyone apes what the smart and cool guys have to say. Here are some examples of opinions you need to share if you want to have “geek cred”:

  • Everything from the 80s is better than anything made now unless it was done by Christopher Nolan.
  • Anything made by Christopher Nolan is the greatest thing ever.
  • Avatar is a bad movie because its story is not original (which is okay if you’re doing a remake of a reboot of a reimagining of a comic book, but not if you’re establishing a completely new universe complete with ecosystem and realistically constructed alien language) and, of course, because there is too much CGI.
  • The Star Wars prequels are bad because Jar Jar has a squeaky voice, there is too much CGI and they’re not the same as the old ones.
  • Indiana Jones 1-3 are awesome, but number 4 is bad because Indy survives a nuclear explosion in a fridge… And there is CGI (ripping out a still-beating heart and dumb gross-out comedy involving disgusting food like in Temple of Doom is okay because “eighties”)
  • In case you didn’t get the memo, CGI is the work of Satan. Unless the entire movie is CGI animation, then it’s okay to drop the irrational hatred and just enjoy (Pixar, Dreamworks).
  • “Mature” is inherently and always better than childlike because we all know only adults watch fantasy movies and play fantasy video games and the definition of “mature” is always “contains complex intrigue, ambiguous or nihilistic morality, sex, violence and swearing”. And people have dirt on their faces.
  • Video games and roleplaying games should be for “the initiated” only. As soon as ordinary people start enjoying them, that means they’ve become mainstream and they are BAD.

Look, I’m not for a moment saying you’re an idiot if you don’t like Avatar or the Star Wars prequels, but I am sick of being called an idiot for liking them. I think many of these views have become so manifest in the geek community that you’re bound to be taken to task very harshly for disagreeing with any of them. And that, to me, is not only boring, it’s worrying.

clichethoughts

I’m proud to say that I greatly enjoyed all of the films mentioned above, I’m a big supporter of George Lucas and yes, I enjoy Christopher Nolan’s work as well. And that is not because I’m superficial or I lack a critical eye, it’s because I truly love fantasy and the feeling of being whisked away to strange new worlds, which Avatar and all of the Star Wars movies gave me in abundance. There is so much more to discover and to talk about when it comes to these films, so much more than the same old cyclical droning about “too much CGI” here and “bad dialogue” there. We get it — we’ve heard it — you’ve had your say, guys.

Now just consider this for a moment: there really are much more original, much more personal insights that I’m sure many people have had as they were watching these films, things that had nothing to do with putting down the film, but insights that arose from simply accepting and enjoying the film and I’d love to hear and read more of those – you know, questions like, where did the name “Neytiri” come from, or is there a deeper reason why the planet is called “Pandora”? Or, is Anakin’s conception without a human father a biblical reference or is it more related to Eastern philosophy? Or an analysis of the outlandish but strangely elegant and unifying visual style of The Phantom Menace, or the way John Williams’ music spans the entire arc of Anakin’s downfall, or a look at the Jedi philosophy as it appears in the prequel films. Or a serious and open-minded investigation on the meaning of midi-chlorians, instead of just the swift, condemning and utterly simplistic judgement that they turn the Force into something scientific rather than spiritual (which is false, by the way).

You know, I want to read more of the stuff that really celebrates the magic of imagination and adventure. There is something childlike and innocent about the way fantasy captures hearts and minds, but also something spiritual, like these other worlds somehow help us to get in touch again with some forgotten, ancient part of our collective unconscious. That’s really the way I look at it, and I find that infinitely more interesting and more exciting to ponder, discuss and share than talking about why this or that film fails to deliver. And at the end of the day, when we’re done talking about this, maybe the most important thing is that we should all just stop whining (including me), get off our butts and create our own magic.

P.S.: There is in fact a very interesting blog on exactly the kind of Star Wars-related questions I mentioned here. It’s called The Star Wars Heresies.

By Clark Kent Without Glasses

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Before you read any further, know this: I am a massive Tolkien fan. If Gandalf the Grey arrived at my door and asked me to share in an adventure, I’d come with him right away, although I’d probably be just as frightened as poor Bilbo was when he set out with a company of Dwarves to take back Erebor from Smaug the dragon.

Hobbitposter

So… The Hobbit! At last, yes, I have seen it! That is, I have seen the first part of the trilogy. I was too late to get tickets to the HFR midnight screening, so I went to the regular 3D version instead. So rest assured, this review will not consist of a lot of talk about the new format but will focus on the film itself.

Let me start by saying that this is 100% a movie for fans of Tolkien’s books. It radiates pure Tolkien-ness and pure Hobbitness in every frame.  In fact, compared to The Lord of the Rings, this film feels much more like it was made for the fans first and foremost and everybody else second. As a fan, that warms my heart greatly, but I can understand how casual moviegoers might find the extremely long first act a bit, well, long.

Of course, all of those people should just be quiet and go watch Skyfall or something, because for us Tolkien fans, this is pure heaven. In fact, in my personal opinion, this film manages to actually be better than the book.

Peter Jackson really doesn’t cut any corners here. Everything you could have wished for is in there, down to Gandalf mentioning the invention of the game of golf. The atmosphere of a younger, brighter, more innocent Middle-Earth is truly achieved to perfection. The vistas of Middle-Earth landscapes, the goblin caves and the mighty kingdom of Erebor are hugely atmospheric and gorgeous.

The humorous, fairy tale tone found in scenes like the three trolls is entirely maintained, while simultaneously slightly changing or adding elements that make it feel fresh. This ethos prevails throughout the nearly 3 hours of the movie.
Simultaneously, it is clear that “An Unexpected Journey” is the first part of a new trilogy, and there are some elements added that weren’t in the book that make it a bit more of a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Radagast The Brown makes an extended appearance. He is a very silly figure and reminds us a bit of Tom Bombadil in a way. The goofiness of this character may throw some people off, but it’s actually pretty close to the style of humour that professor Tolkien himself favoured in his writing.

There is also a scene set in Rivendell where Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman meet up to discuss the possibility of a great evil returning to the world. The sense of foreboding, of this beautiful, untouched world possibly nearing its end, is achieved so subtly it is actually very powerful for anyone familiar with The Lord of the Rings.

It is very late in the film when Bilbo meets Gollum, but when this happens, the result is pure magic. Gollum’s dual personality is introduced in a way that is comical, creepy and deeply tragic all at once. I’m not going to spoil too much, but this entire episode is straight from Tolkien and it really, really works.

Since this whole movie is almost 3 hours long and only covers the first 120 pages or so of the book, a lot has been added to the film in order to provide some more depth to the characters. A lot of attention has been given to the Dwarvish culture, their proud heritage and their bitter losses. While most of the Dwarves still remain somewhat amorphous at this point, the character of Thorin Oakenshield is GREATLY enhanced. In the book, you get a sense of the proud and noble, somewhat gruff heir to the throne of Erebor. In the film, he is a genuinely powerful presence who carries a great weight on his shoulders, who is filled with bitter resentment and desperate determination. He has a personal grudge to settle with Azog, the Pale Orc, a very minor character briefly mentioned in the novel, now given a similar role as Lurtz, the Uruk-Hai commander who stalks the heroes in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo is actually insanely good. The first moment you see him, he is sitting on his porch smoking a pipe when Gandalf comes by. This scene plays out exactly as it does in the book, down to the many definitions of the phrase ‘good morning’. For fans, this is of course a huge treat. But the chemistry between Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Freeman’s Bilbo is absolutely exhilirating. Bilbo’s stiff Britishness and the way it gradually gives way to his more “Tookish’ side are handled with subtlety and grace.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a peculiar film. It’s a massive, special effects-laden $500 million production and yet it doesn’t feel like a Hollywood blockbuster at all. Neither does it feel like a traditional grand epic. It’s none of these things. It is the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, brought to life.

So what’s not to like? Well, as I’ve suggested earlier, the film is very long for the amount of story it actually covers from the book, so for non-fans, especially the early scenes in Bilbo’s Hobbit hole will probably feel like they take forever. To me, it’s pure bliss, but I’m a Tolkien fan who grew up on this stuff. I’ve been fantasising about the possibility of a film since I was 12. For me, this exceeds my expectations and my wildest dreams. It’s ridiculously gorgeous, filled with warmth and heart and character… And MIDDLE-EARTH. The fact that we have to wait a whole year for the second part is downright cruel! 🙂

I want to see it again! Now!

By Clark Kent Without Glasses